Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Humanity in war

From Craig Nelson's The First Heroes.

The story of the selection, training, flight and escape of the eighty American volunteers in Jimmy Doolittle's famous raid on Tokyo, April 18, 1942, just four and a half months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Review to follow but these three passages caught my eye and I found touching. As you read of the flyers' escapes through rural and occupied China, you begin to recall just how recently, how remote much of the world was.

Page 200, the escape of pilot Davey Jones. The mission had been conducted in complete secrecy, they landed in remote rural China (elsewhere in the book it is described how lacking in basic infrastructure the area was). No electricty, no real roads, just railroads to connect the people into the modern world. And yet . . .
"At first light it wasn't raining, just misty. I started west," remembered plane five pilot Davey Jones. "I had the musette bag I had held onto, with cigarettes and a pistol and a pint of whiskey. It was Old Overholt, I'll never forget that, and by golly I still have the label.

"By noon I heard bells, and saw cattle and some people. The first group I saw just smiled at me and at each other. I very cleverly got out my little notebook and drew a map of China. They obviously hadn't the vaguest idea what I meant. And then I got very smart and I drew a little locomotive and then I went choo-choo-choo, and I got a good response; I got lots of smiles. I offered them cigarettes. They all took cigarettes. So I just left and went down the trail until I found a railroad. And after a quarter of a mile, I found a small stationhouse.

"There was one young man there, and he could print a little English, and I could print in our language 'Yushan,' the name of the town we were supposed to go to. My copilot Hoss Wilder walked in about that time. This young Chinese man had a handcar, and he pumped us up the road about three miles to another station, where there was a locomotive and a boxcar, with about twenty or thirty soldiers in khaki-type uniforms. We ascertained they were Chinese, not Japanese, thankfully. So Hoss and I got on the boxcar and we went up the road about fifteen miles, and came to this town, Yushan, and pulled into the railroad yard.

"The doors of the boxcar were opened, and we were standing there, facing this huge crowd. There must have been ten thousand people if there was one. The streets were hung in banners which said: WELCOME BRAVE HEROES! YOU'VE STRUCK A BLOW FOR US. A gentleman in Western clothes came up to the car and said, "Hi. I'm Dani-Yang. I'm the mayor of Yushan, and these people are going to welcome you.'

"This is five o'clock in the afternoon on the nineteenth in the middle of nowhere in China, a little over twenty-four hours after we'd bombed Tokyo, and they knew all about it! Isn't that something?"

Other bomber crews had similar receptions. From page 206:
They arrived on the outskirts of town late in the afternoon. Again, Wong told them to wait, and for more than an hour, they just sat there without any explanation. Then, from far off in the distance, came a noise, which grew louder, and closer, until the Americans found themselves in the middle of a glorious and enthusiastic parade, led by an eight-piece marching band. "There was this Chinese band who'd stayed up all night long, learning to play 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" said Bob Bourgeois. "There was an American flag, and I tell you, there were five guys from crew thirteen, listening to them play "The Star-Spangled Banner,' well we had tears running down our faces."

And on page 211 there is this touching testament to the Chinese peasants, who in primitive and dangerous circumstances, set a high bar for simple humanity. The experience of the crew from plane fifteen:
They arrived at a small house, with a covered pen for goats. As they approached, the light was extinguished. The men knocked on the door, yelling the Chinese phrases they'd been taught on Hornet, but there was no answer. Finally giving up, they decided to spend the night with the goats. It was shelter from the rain, even though the floor was covered in dung.

As they were trying to figure out how to get some sleep, the light came back on, the door opened, and the man of the house stepped out. He peered at them, swinging a lantern, ignored their attempts at Chinese, and ushered them inside. The family had started a smoky fire, from straw. The men dried themselves and tried to keep from suffocating as the farmer's wife and mother gave them hot rice, with bits of vegetable and some kind of meat. Doc White: "I'm sure he had never seen a white man before. I'd like to think that if I were called out in the middle of the night and met four giants (we were two feet taller than he was) in strange uniforms, speaking a strange language, and obviously in trouble, I'd like to think I would have the courage to ask them into my house. That's what that little man did."

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